Steven Wilson’s lyricism, especially in Porcupine Tree, is no stranger to bizarre imagery. Consider this stanza from one of the few classic tracks from the debut LP, the ballad “Nine Cats”: “A minstrel bought a crooked spoon / And gave it to a blue baboon / Who filled it full of virgin snow / And wandered in the afterglow”.
Though that would not be the last of Wilson’s psychedelic lyrics in Porcupine Tree’s career, the charm and humor of those early experiments (when the band was basically just Wilson working by himself) would later resurge on some of the group’s rock-heavy albums. The psychedelic material of Up the Downstair (1993) and The Sky Moves Sideways (1995) was, while displaying traits of the genre’s inherent absurdity, comparatively serious. You laugh when hearing about a toad in ballet shoes in “Nine Cats”, but you’re left pondering existence itself upon hearing the chorus lyric of The Sky Moves Sideways’ title track: “Sometimes it’s only afterwards, I find that I’m not there”.
And while Porcupine Tree’s lyrics took a dark turn in the 21st century (the serial killer narratives on In Absentia, the drug-laden societal downfall of Fear of a Blank Planet), there are still traces of that early psychedelic humor even on the groups releases that focused on progressive rock and metal. Despite Stupid Dream’s emphasis on song-based material rather than the long-form progressive experimentation of previous albums, “Stranger by the Minute” is an excellent continuation of the psychedelic songwriting that so dominated the band’s early years. Like the track before it, “Baby Dream in Cellophane”, its lyrics are bizarre and whimsical, though unlike that song, it has a cheery mood to it, a mood present on no other track from Stupid Dream. I can count on both hands the amount of songs in Porcupine Tree’s discography that are “happy”, and this is one of them.
“Stranger by the Minute” was chosen as the second single for this LP (following “Piano Lessons”), and rightly so. This is one of Stupid Dream’s most accessible tracks in terms of genre; save for the Dave Gilmour-esque slide guitar, this is a pretty straightforward bit of alternative rock. However, it’s never generic, as it bears many of the requisite Porcupine Tree stylistics, such as the vocal harmonies in the chorus and quirky lyrics.
The chorus makes it clear that Wilson is singing about a dream state. The first few lines make it sound rather terrifying, singing of ghosts and killers walking through a park alongside children. However, it’s the second stanza that gives a peculiar, though insightful, perspective (“Under floorboards, it’s hard to fly a kite / Underwater, my cigarette won’t light / Standing in the shade, I’m getting frostbite”).
In a dream, especially a psychedelic one, there’d be no absurdity in smoking underwater or flying a kite without air. Here Wilson highlights how paradox cuts both ways, and in doing so he shows how irony is integral to all of our lives. Often times we expect to be able to do whatever we want in our imaginations or in our dreams; however, there are some things out of our control. In a rather oblique way this could be seen as a Y2K commentary given Stupid Dream’s 1999 release; with the world rapidly changing for any number of reasons, whether it be globalization or the proliferation of new technology, no doubt existence seemed fraught with contradictions back then. Ideas that were once thought to be the inventions of science fiction, such as the Internet, became a reality, thanks to Al Gore’s incredible work. (I jest.) After listening to this track many, many times, I’ve come to feel there might just be something more to this than I first suspected.
The band must have thought so too, as evidenced by the song’s reappearance at the two “special shows” performed at Radio City Music Hall in New York and the Royal Albert Hall in London. Both concerts opened with an acoustic opening set, with “Stranger by the Minute” being the first offering. Even in that intimate setting, all of what made it such a great song the first time around was still present. Though most Porcupine Tree fans wouldn’t call “Stranger by the Minute” a “classic” (the tracks from Stupid Dream with that designation are usually “Even Less” and “Don’t Hate Me”), upon hearing this acoustic version it felt like Porcupine Tree was greeting an old friend. The myriad of “classic” tracks that have emerged since Stupid Dream haven’t prevented “Stranger by the Minute” from feeling like a truly special part of the band’s oeuvre.
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